27th June 2011 Articles
The plans for a reformed, elected second chamber will give it the authority to challenge governments
As the government unveiled its white paper and draft bill on House of Lords reform three weeks ago, the old guard lined up variously to oppose it, to ridicule it and to defend the status quo. They have given the impression that turkeys retain an indefinite veto on Christmas, and that all attempts to remove it are futile.
Yet the evidence points in the other direction. All three main parties committed to a wholly or mainly elected Lords in their 2010 manifestos. If MPs vote for a reform bill next year, surely these unelected peers will not wish to stand intractably in its way?
Any objection that reform is taking place with undue haste will not stand up to scrutiny. It is now 100 years since the passage of the Parliament Act, which states the intention to substitute the Lords with “a second chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”. Committees and commissions have been ruminating on what to do ever since.
The cross-party consensual genesis of the draft bill is clear. The proposals evidently have strong support from the cabinet and the prime minister, promising elections in 2015. An elected second chamber is an idea whose time has come, and if it isn’t enacted now the Lords will remain unstable until it is.
The proposals are about to be examined by a joint committee of MPs and peers that will have substantial options to consider: for instance the size of a reformed house, the form of proportional electoral system, the retention or otherwise of an appointed element. Its role, in the best tradition of that kind of scrutiny, will be to seek definition not outright demolition.
Of 117 peers appointed since the 2010 pledges, 24 are Lib Dems. Given that their party is the most trenchantly in favour of reform it would be a real betrayal if these peers switched sides. Of the 788 peers in the house at present, two-thirds were appointed after the 1997 Labour manifesto commitment to democratic reform. Implementation now is hardly a surprise.
Of course, many of the 39 new Labour peers are more sceptical. A distrust of Nick Clegg and distaste for the coalition are just two reasons for their opposition. There is genuine disquiet about the future relationship between the Lords and the Commons, much of which is based on the belief that a government should be able to “get its business through”. Indeed, parliament is there not simply to facilitate the passage of government business but to challenge the executive. A democratic second chamber will strengthen parliament as a whole. If the charge against a government is that it is doing too much, too fast, then an elected Lords is part of a prescription to slow it down.
Peers and MPs will note that the draft bill maintains the primacy of the Commons by ensuring that the Lords will never have a more recent mandate (since it will be elected in thirds). Senators (if that is what they are called) will be legitimate, but not able to claim they are as accountable as MPs, since their terms will be longer and non-renewable. And the parliament acts will remain in place, allowing the Commons to override the Lords after a year.
In truth the relationship between the houses has evolved already, with the Lords becoming more assertive after the 1958 Life Peerages Act, the 1999 Lords Act (which removed most hereditaries) and the 2010 election (when the coalition programme was said by some peers not to have the legitimacy of a manifesto).
If there are elections the relationship will evolve again. But to suggest there will be constant gridlock is to ignore international experience where democratic second chambers frequently challenge their lower houses – and yet the world continues to turn.
The Lords is much overrated as an assembly of the wise and the independent. Most non-party peers make little if any contribution to the house, while most party appointees are long-retired former MPs, councillors or failed Commons candidates. Almost all are very old and very “ex”. And they are fairly random in their activities. The Lords has no committees whatever that scrutinise large areas of government activity, including foreign affairs, defence, welfare or the public services.
We are peers of two different parties. Our views of the government’s other features and flaws are various, but on Lords reform we are at one. The draft bill reflects the broad centre of gravity for a solution which will move our parliament – after 100 years of waiting – further into the democratic world.
We urge the joint committee to do its job in a constructive spirit, and we urge all colleagues in the Lords then to vote with the grain of reform so the three parties’ promises to the electorate are fulfilled. Only then will the Lords have the political authority to sustain its role in revising legislation and challenging the government – on behalf of the electorate, who will choose all or most of its members – for the century ahead.